Danny Danziger and Mark MCrum have the same problem a lot of us have – trying to figure out what to call those things we never looked up in a dictionary because we never knew we’d need to know. Danziger and McCrum took the logical step and have thoughtfully gone to the trouble of compiling a nice selection of seldom-needed words in The Whatchamacallit.
Some of the entries in this light-hearted collection aren’t really obscure; ‘contrail,’ for instance, is familiar to most fourth-graders, and the inclusion of ‘bolero’ is probably explained by the fact that the authors are men. Ah, but even those of us who’ve worn boleros and who follow ice dancing probably don’t know the full history of the word.
Danziger and McCrum start each entry with the quick definition than wander off into near stream-of-consciousness as they explain the origin of worlds like ‘cutwater,’ ‘scarpetta,’ and ‘grawlix.’ That’s the added value in The Whatchamacallit: the authors don’t just give a Webster’s definition; they enrich each word with history, alternate meanings, and amusing anecdotes.
It’s one thing to drop a word into the conversation, but wouldn’t you rather elaborate on its etymology? With The Whatchamacallit at your side, you can turn a birthday party into an educational opportunity by explaining to your children that dragées are a symbol of prosperity in some countries. Impress your sophisticated friends by telling them you collect muselets, or just stop wasting time looking for a tape measure and instead learn to use a purlicue.
The Whatchamacallit won’t appeal to everyone, of course. There’s probably a name for people who aren’t interested in linguistic trivia, but the authors failed to include that one in this collection. (Other oversights include words for those outside pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and the individual parts of a chain lock.) For the rest of us, this delightful little book is a blast to read and to share with other… What’s the word for those people who think words in themselves are fascinating?